Scientists agree that some of the best Oi and punk music is coming from France nowadays, and that’s increasingly becomibrng common knowledge on our shores too: just ask any man, woman or child on a London bus. If you follow the French scene closely, Syndrome 81 will not have escaped you. Hailing from the chilly and wet seaside town of Brest, the band’s first outing was their self-titled demo of 2013, followed by the monumental Désert Urbain EP, a split-EP, and a 7’ single.
Take look at the band’s imagery, and you may guess that Syndrome 81 don’t exactly play happy-go-lucky drinking songs. In fact, their sound often evokes the dark underbelly of French punk and Oi history – bands such as Komintern Sect and Camera Silens, but also Heimat-Los spring to mind. But do they themselves feel they have much in common with these? Is their gloominess weather-related? Or is it because Brest’s transition to becoming a service industry hasn’t gone too smoothly for the local working class?
I asked Fabrice, Damien and Jacky these and other questions. Syndrome 81 may be no fashion gods (forgive them, they’re only punks…), but as a band, they are compulsory listening.
Could you briefly outline how Syndrome 81 came about? Also, what’s the ‘concept’ behind your band?
Jacky: Everyone in the band has previously played in others bands, mostly punk and hardcore. To name but a few: Thrashington DC, The Wedge, The Night Stalkers. Mitch is still playing in Litovsk, and I play with Damien in Coupe Gorge. In the beginning, Syndrome 81 was just a ‘studio recording band’ consisting only of Fabrice and myself. The idea was to record some songs in the vein of Criminal Damage, but with French lyrics – nothing more, nothing less. The demo was well received, so we asked Damien, Mitch and Tim to join the band to play some shows.
In spite of your hardcore backgrounds, you’re signed with Une Vie Pour Rien, a label and fanzine closely linked to skinhead culture. What’s your relationship with skinheads? Or to put it in a McCarthyist fashion: are you, or have you ever been, skinheads?
Dam: We aren’t really signed with Une Vie Pour Rien, we just recorded a song for their compilation La Force Dans La Oi! Vol 2. Our main label is Destructure, which is more into punk/hardcore stuff. We also did some releases on different labels for splits and single. Our relationship with the world of skinhead is not that close. We have skinhead friends for sure, and sometimes we play in that scene – but we are more into the DIY hardcore punk scene. However, we try to play for all people as long as we think the conditions are OK.
As to the fashion aspect: no, we are not and have never been skinheads, we all come from the punk and hardcore scenes. Fab has shaved his head because he is balding, and he wears Fred Perry to look smart for work, ha ha!
There seems to be a mini-trend of ‘dark Oi’ with melancholic post-punk influences: there’s Litovsk, for example, and there’s even a Polish band called Prisoners by Choice, whose music isn’t a million miles away from yours. Do you see this as a collective development of sorts, or just coincidence?
Dam: Well, our guitar player Mitch also plays in Litovsk. And yes, I have listened Prisoners by Choice – to me, they sound a bit like a mix between Syndrome 81 and Litovsk, but I can’t say if it’s a musical trend or coincidence.
Fab: We didn’t plan any of this; I think it’s a pure coincidence. We are huge fans of No Hope For The Kids, and they were doing that long before us. We’re not Oi anyway, we’re hardcore punks who sometimes play songs that have an Oi feel to them. There are always trends in the punk scene, and I find it amusing that we’re the ‘flavour of the day’, but if we’re perceived as the forerunners of this revival trend rather than followers, that suits me well.
Is your melancholy influenced by the times we live in – do you feel pessimistic about the future, or do you have faith?
Dam: I am torn on the future. On the one hand, I feel the youth are more concerned about things such as ecological problems, anti-homophobia, and animals ethics than previous generation were. But at the same time, I think society is becoming more and more selfish and consumerist. What’s more, politics is getting worse and worse.
Fab: I think the future is bleak – a slow mass suicide we’re all involved in at a global level. And since we’re talking about behaviour in our modern society, I think we’re taking too long to move on. The weight of tradition is still huge. For instance, homophobia is still around, I can sense it every day. I thought it was something of the past, but I keep meeting people my age or even younger who talk shit on gay people. The same goes for racism. I’ve been a vegetarian for over a decade, and it’s the same concerning that: many people are still close-minded about animal rights issues.
None of this has prevented me from procreating, but I don’t think there is hope in sight. So I guess I’m pessimistic, but I’m still trying to take some positive steps on a small level.
When I think of obvious forerunners to ‘dark Oi’, Paris Violence spring to mind. What do you think of that band?
Dam: I really like two albums by Paris Violence, L’ age de Glace and En Attendant l’Apocalypse. I haven’t made an effort to listen to their new stuff properly because it sounds a bit too ‘metal’ for me. But also, Flav seems to have shitty political ideas and a taste for provocation that doesn’t really interest me. In addition, I don’t think he asked the best guy to shoot his video clip, ha ha!
Fab: I only know Mourir en Novembre well enough, which I reckon contains some good tunes. However, I agree with Dam, the guy has definitely fucked-up patriotic and royalist ideas. And from what I heard, the sound of his records is sketchy most of the time. Enough said – this guy and his followers don’t deserve too much attention.
On the other hand, the dark feel of your music was already present in some 1980s stuff by Komintern Sect, for example. Do you feel indebted to the ‘Chaos en France’ era?
Jacky: We all listen to old French Oi, but it’s not our main influence, except maybe Camera Silens. Blitz and Criminal Damage are huge influences, as well as bands from Sweden and Denmark such as The Vicious or No Hope For The Kids. That’s why there is some melancholy in our music. If most people think our music is influenced by French Oi bands from the 80s, I think that’s because of the French singing.
What are some of your lyrical themes?
Fab: First of all, there are a couple of songs about Brest, my hometown. But more generally, I write a lot about my perception of urban life. We have a few songs about wandering in the streets, being lost in the city, and being helpless and hopeless in this world. For example, ‘Désert Urbain’, ‘Dans les Rues la Nuit’, ‘Brest la Grise’, ‘Seul Contre Tous’, ‘Recouvrance’, ‘N’Oublie Jamais’, ‘La Rouille du Quotidien’ and ‘Pulsions Electriques’.
The songs also reflect my taste in literature and cinema. Many are influenced by the books I read or the movies I watch, for instance ‘Seul Contre Tous’, ‘A Feu et à Sang’, ‘Chaque Jour’, ‘Pulsions Electriques’.
I’m also interested in the small stories buried beneath history, particularly during recent conflicts such as the events in ex-Yugoslavia, Ireland, Rwanda and Algeria – e.g. ‘A Coup de Gégène’, ‘Traître’.
There is also ‘Une vie pour rien’, which I think is the most personal stuff I ever wrote.
Do you consider yourselves a political band?
Fab: I guess we are…maybe not in the lyrics because I don’t feel like writing anthemic songs. Some bands were good are writing political songs, Crisis for example. Then again, actions speak louder than words, so writing shallow protest songs seems too easy to me.
But who knows, I may have a song in store about the French situation these days, for either Syndrome 81 or another band. In times of economic depression, you see the same shitty nationalist ideas gaining ground, which is quite depressing. But we’re all on the left side of things, for sure. Anyway, everything you say and do, and the way you behave, is political. Therefore, deciding to play music together is political. The way we record it, the way we choose to release our records, and the places we play are political anyway.
You mentioned you had a couple of songs about life in Brest. Can you tell us about your town and how your music reflects it?
Fab: Brest is in the far west of France, and I believe it has 150,000 inhabitants. It’s the rainiest city of France, the French Seattle. Living here is like being stuck in the same season all year. The song ‘Rainy Day’ by No Hope For The Kids describes this atmosphere well. Since we are products of our environment, I guess our music reflects the city we’re from: grey walls result in melancholic songs. There’s almost nothing historical in the architecture of the city because of the intense bombing it suffered during WWII.
Ninety percent of Brest was destroyed, so the buildings were made quickly after the war. That’s why they’re all the same, grey and ugly. In the 90s, most industries in the military port closed their gates. Hence, there are many unemployed and poor people, and I think booze offers them an escape from their sadness.
Brest always seemed to have a thriving music scene, though – enough to warrant a book, Olivier Polard’s ‘40 ans de Rock a Brest’. How come that Brest has been such a hub of creativity?
Jacky: Brest had a good punk scene in the 80s. Why? Maybe because the town is far away from everything else, so if the kids wanted to see punk shows they had to form their own bands. Another reason is that Brest was a working class city with a military port and arsenal. The sons and daughters of the working class and the poor generation formed most of the best punk bands in the 80s.
What artists from Brest’s music history do you feel closest to in spirit?
Fab: As for native non-punk artists, I like Christophe Miossec. He’s a French ‘pop’ singer, but he has definitely that ‘Brest edge’ in his lyrics. I wish so much he had written lyrics for a few punk songs.
Jacky: The three bands that I like a lot are Les Collabos, Al Kapott and Boda, the first melodic punk rock band in Brest. Les Collabos played some shows few months ago with our drummer Tim on drums.
In the mid-80s, as the ‘civil war’ between boneheads, redskins and punks was raging in Paris, Les Collabos and Brutal Combat were still sharing stages in Brest. Did this peaceful coexistence extend to their fans?
Dam: From what I gathered in conversation with some of Les Collabos, Brutal Combat wasn’t a rightwing band when they played with them. That came later when they were ‘managed’ by the guy of Rebelles Européens. And I guess they stopped playing in the classic punk scene after going rightwing.
As to the ‘civil war’ between fash, reds and punks, I never heard such stories about Brest. There probably was some trouble, but not on the same scale as in Paris, with all the gangs and stuff. Even if Brutal Combat is one the more infamous RAC bands, there was never a strong rightwing scene here in Brest. It’s hard to talk about this period, though, because we were only three years old then.
Do you consider yourselves French, or is your Breton identity more important to you?
Dam: Speaking for myself only, my grandparents spoke the Breton language, and my mother understands and reads it. I only know a few words. Although I think it’s a good thing to have a strong local culture, I’m not really interested or involved in it myself. It’s more of a folklore than a real identity, except for some people who are really into it. Anyway, Breton culture is still alive in Breton language schools, at Celtic music festivals, at the Fest Noz (‘night party’), and so on.
Jacky: I’m French because this is the country where I was born, but aside from that fact, I really don’t care about French or Breton identity.
Fab: The same goes for me, fuck patriotism, period. Brest is particular because it hasn’t got a Breton identity that is as strong as in other cities in Brittany. Because it was, and still is, one of the main military ports of France, many navy men from other part of France have settled in Brest. So the Breton influence vanished as the military port grew over the centuries.
Can you briefly comment on some old bands that I feel you have something in common with? Let’s start with Heimat-Los from Paris.
Dam: Shame on me, but I only know they were one of the first French hardcore bands. I tried to listen to their music, but the sound was really bad, so I didn’t go back.
The Wipers from Portland.
Dam: I love the Over the Edge and Is This Real albums. They were a huge influence on so many Portland bands – The Estranged, Autistic Youth, Red Dons and so many more!
Razzia from Hamburg and Siekiera from Puławy, Poland.
Dam: Sorry, never heard of either, but I will give them a listen.
What’s coming next for Syndrome 81? Is it still just a ‘project’, or a real band that you can see musically evolving?
Fab: I think don’t think we’re planning to stick around for ten years. We will release a split 7 inch with our friends Urban Savage from Malmö, Sweden, and then we will focus on recording a proper album. Then we’ll see… There is no main band as such; everyone in the band has different projects because we all like different kinds of punk and hardcore music.
The audience for your music is growing in the UK . Any plans for a ‘French invasion’ tour alongside like-minded bands?
Dam: That would be great, but we don’t have any serious offers to play the UK yet. Hope we’ll get some soon!
Fab: The people from Rat’s Blood invited us to play in Ireland, but we couldn’t make it.
OK lads, thanks for the interview.
Fab: Thanks for your interest.
Photos: Found on the web – photographers drop us a line, and we’ll credit you.